Lorenzo Milani came from a prosperous, secular family in Florence. After becoming Catholic, he studied for the priesthood and was ordained in 1947. Because of his progressive tendencies, he was assigned to the remote village of Barbiani. There he established a school that became a laboratory for his advanced pedagogy. Whereas peasant children typically left school illiterate, Milani wanted to educate “sovereign citizens” able to think critically and follow their consciences.
His beliefs were tested in 1965 when he addressed an open letter to military chaplains who had publicly condemned conscientious objectors as cowards who insulted the Fatherland. Milani rejected the division of the world between the Fatherland and foreigners. For him the world was divided between the oppressed and the oppressors; “the former are my Fatherland.” Milani was arrested and charged with “instigation to commit an offense,” since conscientious objection was then illegal in Italy. By this time he was suffering from leukemia and was too ill to attend his trial. He submitted a long letter to the court, defending his right as a priest and a teacher to teach his students “how a citizen reacts to injustice. . . . How a Christian reacts also to the priest and even the bishop who errs. How each one has to feel responsible for everyone else.”
Though Milani was acquitted, he died on June 26, 1967, while his acquittal was under appeal. In 2017 Pope Francis visited Barbiani and prayed at Dom Milani’s tomb.
“I hope that all over the world my fellow priests and teachers of every religion and every school will teach what I teach. . . . If we cannot save humanity we will at least save our souls.”